Townbuilding

Literary fiction writers don’t usually have to do quite as much world building as their science fiction and fantasy colleagues. We work mostly with existing locations, either past or present. Still, some of us feel the pull of building a place of our own, like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Fitzgerald’s West and East Egg, Wilder’s Grover’s Corners, or Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, or my own Menominee Falls, Michigan. So what follows are a few tips on how to build a town of your own.

1. Remember: Geography is Destiny.

Mountain towns differ from seaside towns. Towns on rivers differ from towns in the desert. Towns off the main highway differ from those twenty minutes from a major city. Towns on a border with another country differ from those far from them. Geography dictates a great deal of our politics, economics, and culture, so this is obviously the most important decision you have to make.

2. Consider what the town lives on.

Towns exist for a reason. Some are little more than a gas station and a restaurant called
“Eat”, but most do something. They farm. They have a cement plant. They ship logs around the country. They mine. They suck in the tourists because some writer who’d never been there went and set a bestselling vampire series in their boring little burg–not that I’m thinking of any place in particular.

Also, remember that the economy changes over time. Maybe the town was once a mining center, but when the price of the mineral bottomed out, the town hit a decline until the highway was widened. Then it became a bedroom community for tech workers in the city who like to hike the hills on weekends.

From this, you can actually determine a great deal about your characters. Maybe they’ve been here all along and have a hard time relating to the newcomers, even though they depend on their money. Or maybe they’re newcomers and they rub up against the resentments of townies who still run a lot of things. I’m not going to go full on Marxist and insist that material conditions dictate all social relationships, but they do dictate a lot. So the economy of the town, and it’s history, have to be considered.

3. What’s the religious makeup of the town? Is it pluralistic, or does one faith dominate?

I spent six years in a town that was 75% Mormon and about 20% Catholic–the Catholic contingent consisted mostly of Polish miners and their descendants (see tip #2)–and believe me, religion mattered a lot. At one point, I avoided a fight because I happened to recognize the kid who wanted to beat me up from a Mass I attended. The Mormons ran the town, natch, and because so much of social life was threaded through a church that those of us lacking a recommend couldn’t access, my guess is that a lot of business, government, and career connections passed through there as well. This isn’t conspiracy. It’s just the way of things in a town dominated by a single faith. Those on the outside are made to feel it, while those on the inside can’t understand why the outsiders think they’re so privileged.

If it’s a pluralistic town, are there any small but loud faiths that tend to monopolize the conversation? Are any of the faiths in decline? Are new ones growing? Economic changes bring new people in sometimes, and those changes bring conflict. At the very least, it’ll be in the air as your characters pursue their goals.

These are just a few of the decisions you have to make. There are a thousand others. For a special challenge, try creating a fictional city. I don’t remember the last time someone did that outside of comic books, and I’d love to see what some of our best writers could do with one.

So tell me about your fictional town.

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